‘Juniper’ Review: Bad Grandma

Starring Charlotte Rampling, this New Zealand-set drama is a portrait of intergenerational bonding with a heavy dose of cynicism.

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By Beatrice Loayza

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“Gin to here, water to here, and a squeeze of lemon,” says Charlotte Rampling’s wheelchair-using Ruth, pointing to an empty jug that she refills with her boozy cocktail of choice three or four times a day. In this scene, she’s gesturing to her scowling grandson, Sam (George Ferrier), a boarding school brat whose antics cause his father to send him to grandma’s rural abode as punishment.

Set in 1990s New Zealand, “Juniper,” Matthew J. Saville’s debut feature, is half coming-of-age story, half swan song, anchored in a process of intergenerational bonding.

Ruth and Sam have never really spent time together — and the first few days are particularly rough, filled with barbs and shattered glasses. Predictably, their relationship softens up, but the film nevertheless maintains some of its prickly charm, in no small part because of the feisty Rampling, whose ice-queen persona here straddles bone-dry humor and withering tragedy.

Both Sam and Ruth are embittered by loss and a sense of alienation, thus their shared tendencies toward self-harm — Sam with his suicidal ideations and Ruth with her relentless drinking. Ruth would be an archetypal “cool” grandma were it not for her haughty bite and startling directness. Still, she winds up spoiling her grandson in the only ways she knows how: throwing Sam and his pals a kegger; buying him new clothes to improve his chances of scoring. Their eventual tenderness is palpable, though deepened by bleakness: Sam has to carry his grandmother to dance, because she will never be able to walk again. In the hospital, after a health scare, he brings her a pouch of gin — the taste of rubber adds a nice touch, Ruth claims.

Less convincing is Saville’s scattered buildup to a resolution as Sam works through past dramas related to his absent father and his mother’s death. This balancing act between sentimentality and cynicism often feels wobbly. Nevertheless, Ruth’s send-off is a powerful one, and Rampling proves to be the ideal vessel for its provocative implications.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters.

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